By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
It might not be the crack of a wooden bat Donn Foltz is hearing this season, but the veteran Central High School baseball coach has definitely noticed a different sound when a BBCOR-certified metal bat connects with a baseball this season.
The dreaded pinging sound off metal isn't history just yet, but the days of screaming line drives straight up the middle and off-the-handle extra-base hits have been seemingly curtailed in high school baseball.
"It doesn't have the sound of a wooden bat, but I think it's getting the distances and so forth -- the exit speed is what they're actually looking for," Foltz said. "So far, what I've seen at our games, if they're trying to keep it from being powerful, it's working. I think they've accomplished what they're trying to do."
Bats certified as BBCOR, or "Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution," are standard equipment in Virginia and the rest of the country this high school baseball season as states have uniformly adopted the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) bat rule which went into effect on Jan. 1. The BBCOR standard replaced the former BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) certified bats, with the intended effect of slowing the exit speed of batted balls and improve overall safety in the game. The BBCOR bats have thicker walls and a smaller sweet spot.
The BBCOR bats are designed to perform more like wooden bats and reduce the "trampoline effect" commonly associated with aluminum and composite bats. Solid wooden bats absorb much of the energy of a pitched ball on impact, while in hollow-core aluminum and composite bats the thin walls flex slightly, allowing the ball to compress less on impact and retain its energy. Added with the bat speed, the ball's exit speed off a standard BESR bat often considerably exceeded the pitch speed.
That combination led to an explosion in offense over the past two decades or so, as the ever-improving bats allowed even mediocre hitters to make solid contact on a consistent basis. It also put fielders, pitchers especially, at greater risk as the faster exit speeds allowed less reaction time.
"I think it has leveled the playing field," Stonewall Jackson coach Mike Lenox said. "You can tell a good swing from a swing that needs to be improved -- I think it has leveled the playing field, especially with the strong kids who'd just get up there and swing.
"A lot of the balls that you think are going, they get up there and then they often die down. They don't have the life that they used to, unless you really sting it."
While most of the country had a year to adjust for the switch, the Virginia High School League accelerated the process out of safety concerns last year and required BBCOR bats at the beginning of the season. Players caught using "illegal" bats under the new BBCOR standard were subject to ejection and a subsequent two-game suspension. With few BBCOR-certified bats available at the time, the VHSL rule led to a lot of scrambling to acquire bats and considerable confusion as to which bats were legal to use.
The VHSL eventually relaxed its rule during the season last year to allow some NFHS-sponsored waivers for certain BESR composite bats which also met ABI (Accelerated Break-In Test) standards. Composite bats have a tendency to increase performance with use, tempting players to tamper with the bats by artificially accelerating the breaking-in process. The ABI test ensured the bats maintained their rated performance throughout the life of the bat.
Since the NFHS ultimately banned most composite bats last year for failing the ABI test, it still led to a limited supply of compliant bats for Virginia's high school players. Combined with the high cost of bats (often in excess of $200), which are traditionally supplied by the players and not the schools, and the new rule had a rocky beginning.
"It was a major change that kind of got put on pretty quickly," Skyline Athletic Director Bill Cupp said. "The National Federation made the rule for this year, and the VHSL decided to be proactive and go ahead with it a year early. It really put us in a bind. We were able to do it, but it wasn't easy."
This year, Cupp and Skyline baseball coach Ben Taylor decided to make sure a lack of bats wouldn't be a problem for the Hawks.
"Normally players have always financed their own bats," Cupp said. "This year I decided along with coach Taylor to buy two baseball bats. I wanted to make sure we had something we could use."
Lenox likes the change, even for competitive reasons. With a roster stacked with speedy players and not much in the way of power, he thinks the BBCOR bats favor a team with a penchant for small-ball tactics.
His players are making the adjustment
"There's not as much pop to the ball," Stonewall Jackson's Matt Litten said. "You've really got to put some muscle behind it to actually get it somewhere this year. It feels the same. You just try to square it up as best you can to hit that sweet spot on there."
Pitchers have taken notice, as well. Instead of nibbling at the corners and trying to miss as many bats as possible, the goal now is to induce weak contact.
"It's not that much different -- if you get a good piece of it, it's still going to do the same thing," Stonewall Jackson sophomore pitcher Colton Harlow said. "But if you jam them inside or get them to hit an outside pitch, they're not going to hit it far.
"... Pitching to contact, that's all you've got to do. Then hopefully the defense will make the plays for you."
That's just what Lenox wants the rest of his Generals to do.
"The first thing I want them to do is to pitch to contact because obviously you have to square a ball pretty well to get it out," Lenox said. "Just pitching to contact makes it easier. You don't have to throw around hitters as much and you let the defense do the work, and it makes you that much more effective also. It puts them on their heels, and just keeps everybody else in the game."
Sherando coach Pepper Martin has seen more teams encourage pitchers to use the entire plate, rather than pitch predominantly outside to avoid those cheap extra-base hits the trampoline effect helped provide for batters.
"We pitch in a lot anyway," Martin said. "A lot of teams have the philosophy of away, away, away. We'll bust you inside sometimes. We've been able to get some weak groundouts that way."
Martin estimates solidly-hit baseballs are traveling about 15 feet less since the BBCOR bats were implemented in Virginia. In a game of adjustments, now it's the hitters' turn to make changes in their approach at the plate.
So far, Martin's Warriors have been better than most.
"It takes a little getting used to," Martin said. "It's designed to be a little bit closer to wooden bats. Your hitting approach is very similar to swinging wood. If you get a pitch on your hands, you've got to pull your hands in or else you're not going to hit it very far."
Although Foltz can see -- and hear -- the difference the BBCOR bats have made this season, he thinks good hitters will continue to do just fine. Case in point -- at last weekend's Harry Combs Baseball Classic in Woodstock, Foltz saw a pair of home runs sail out of the park off BBCOR-certified bats.
"I saw a kid from Broadway hit one over the 376 sign," Foltz said. "Good hitters are still going to find the gaps. I just don't think it's quite as often."